Grammar 101 with Michael Kwan

When two words have the same pronunciation and one is written far more often than the other, you might struggle with choosing the right one. Someone might use “segway” when they really mean to write “segue” instead. That can cause some confusion, to be sure, but what happens when someone decides to say an existing word in a different way in an effort to avoid sounding offensive? This is the nature of revisionist pronunciation.

Perhaps one of the best known examples of this is the planet Uranus. As children, many of us enjoyed many a childish giggle over the proper pronunciation for the name of this planet. We’d jokingly ask one another, “Are there rings around Uranus?”

It was crude and immature, but hey, we were kids.

This is because, at least when I was going through school and learning about the solar system, “Uranus” was pronounced in such a way that it sounded an awful lot like “your anus.” I’m sure the scientists and educators knew it at the time too. These days, you’re far more likely to hear the “revisionist pronunciation” of Uranus, which sounds like more “yoo-run-us.”

Almost ironically, this new pronunciation can take on a similar bathroom humor quality, because it can almost be construed as “urine is” or “urine us.” I suppose a bodily fluid is better than the neighboring orifice. Some adults hesitate to talk about Phuket in Thailand, for example, because they think it sounds like they’re cursing. (Side note: “Ph” is pronounced like the “p” sound in Thai and not like the “f” sound.)

It is important to note that it is not the political correctness of the word itself that is being revised, as would be the case with terms like “retarded” or “dwarf,” but rather just their pronunciation. And then there are words that sound like they could be offensive, but they really shouldn’t be. You’ve got “niggardly” to mean cheap or not generous, as well as “cock” and “ass” referring to the barnyard animals. People choose different words in the name of political correctness and to avoid misinterpretation.

And while there is certainly something to be said about not offending those around you, political correctness should not take a backseat to actual correctness. You still want to be accurate, as would be the case when asking about the sex or gender of a newborn child. Gender is a cultural construct; sex is biological.

I never found the original way of saying “Uranus” to be offensive. I just thought it was amusing and I’m really not sure the revisionist pronunciation is necessary. In other contexts, changing the name completely might be a far better idea.